Earlier this year we announced that The Pioneer, fuelled by Nutri-Grain, would be heading north in 2020. And many took a punt on where it would land. New Zealand isn't short of places to ride a mountain bike. The event organisers have just annonced that The Pioneer will be headed to the Central North Island in 2020, starting and finishing in the Mountain Bike Mecca of Rotorua.
2020 will see the Epic Series event celebrate five years, with the previous four all in the South Island. Event founder and The IRONMAN Group Oceania Managing Director Dave Beeche is excited about the move to the North.
“The South Island has created some wonderful memories and left lifelong impressions on all who have ridden The Pioneer in its first four years and in many ways, we are sad to be leaving this part of the world.

Cheers South Island! Photo: Tim Bardsley-Smith

“But The Pioneer has always been about celebrating New Zealand, welcoming international riders to our world class riding trails and opening parts of the country that they and the locals would not otherwise have the chance to ride. The very heart of the Kiwi pioneering spirit is about exploring new lands and in the case of this event, riding beyond.
“It is with that in mind that we look forward to a new and equally stunning chapter in the event’s history, with Rotorua and the surrounding region set to amaze Kiwis and internationals alike with its hospitality, world-class trails and unique tourism attractions. This is going to be six memorable days of riding and I am sure for many, a few more days exploring all that Rotorua and the central North Island has to offer.”

New Zealand mountain bike legend and Rotorua local Mark ‘Cabin’ Leishman has been charged with plotting the six-days of riding and can’t wait for the race to head to his neck of the woods.
“We plan on taking riders on an incredible six-day journey linking together some of the best riding the North Island has to offer in what will be very much a change from the South Island in the nature of the trails and the challenge. Riders are going to love it.” said Leishman.
“Those who have ridden previous Pioneers will want to be amongst the first to ride in Rotorua, and those who have never been must put this on their to-do list in 2020. The first edition of any event is always special, on this occasion riders get the benefit of four years of planning and experience.”
Rotorua is ready to welcome riders with open arms, with Mayor Steve Chadwick thrilled that the region has attracted yet another international event.
“Gaining another international adventure race for next year’s event calendar should make our community extremely proud,” said Chadwick. The Pioneer will sit alongside Crankworx, and of course the Whaka 100, amongst many other popular events in Rotorua throughout the year.
“The fact that these events are choosing Rotorua as their first destination outside of the South Island shows that they have confidence in Rotorua’s ability to deliver spectacular events. It fits with the vision we have and investment we are making to enrich the forest experience, an investment that has the confidence of central government through its Provincial Growth Fund.
“Events like this not only bring competitors and their supporters but also expose Rotorua to a global audience and continue to build our city’s reputation as a world-class mountain bike destination.
“We look forward to welcoming The Pioneer to Rotorua.”
Leishman goes on to paint a picture of what the new-look Pioneer will deliver to riders, once again in teams of two as they share all the week has to offer.
“We are working on a course that sweeps down from Rotorua to the west, hitting iconic cycleways and mountain bike trails on the way – all linked up by a network of forestry and gravel roads.  The course will hit its most southern point at Lake Taupō before heading back up towards the Rotorua finish. 

“Riders will experience the spectacular and diverse landscapes of the region, from dense mossy virgin forest, geothermal wonders, lakes, rivers and lush farmland. Without giving too much away, this is going to be special.
Leishman hints at fewer of the massive climbs that the Pioneer is synonymous with but warns it will still be a tough event to conquer.
“While we move away from the ‘monster’ climbs of previous editions of the Pioneer; make no mistake, this won’t be a walk in the park. The constant undulation and elevation change combined with the abundance of mountain bike trails presents a new challenge – so be prepared to really see what you, your teammate and your bike are really made of.”
Leishman highlighted the change in topography from South to North that will see The Pioneer maintain its place as one of the three EPIC events alongside the Swiss Epic and Absa Cape Epic (South Africa).
“Riders will be constantly challenged, as they take on many of the world class flowing single-tracks the region is known for. All linked together with classic New Zealand Cycle trails, private forestry, farmland, and quiet secluded roads.”
Entries open on January 30, 2020, with the full course details to be made public in March 2020. While Leishman is offering up an approximation of riding distances and elevation now, riders will be given the full course description in March.

Our take on the move north

The South Island has been a fitting home for The Pioneer. It landed as a race that was tough, something that the Kiwi race organisers wore with pride. And while the new format for 2018 and 2019 softened it a little - finishing The Pioneer was a true challenge befitting being part of the Epic Series, and just as an event in its own right. You got to cross high passes, remote backcountry stations, and ride world-class trails. It was a good mix.

It will be interesting to see how much of this original character remains as the race moves north. Will riders get to tackle routes that aren't otherwise possible? Will the routes be optimised for race villages near hot springs? Will more singletrack and less huge climbs make for more traffic on the trails? We'll just have to wait and see. This should be a great move for The Pioneer, but there is a bit of a feeling that the Southern Alps withstood this test - they can't be tamed.